Cleaning Up the Ganges

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Already, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cleanup plan for the Ganges river has come in for criticism from various quarters. The sharpest censure came recently from India’s Supreme Court, which observed that the government’s action plan may not result in a clean Ganges “even after 200 years.”

The apex court has ordered the government to provide a cleanup plan with stages and a schedule.

Promises to clean the Ganges figured in Modi’s election speeches and in his party’s election manifesto. Soon after coming to power in May, he signaled that the Ganges would be a priority by creating a Ministry for Water Resources, River Development and Ganges Rejuvenation. A flurry of meetings followed. In July, the government announced “Namami Ganga,” (in Sanskrit it means “obeisance to the Ganges”), an Integrated Ganges Development Project, and allocated around $334 million for it. It promised a clean Ganges in three years.

However, little is known about the Ganges project or what it entails.

“All we have are some indications in a statement here and a report there of some of the likely elements of the plan: cleaning the Ganges, removing the pollution, environmental flows, at least one branch of Ganges to be free-flowing, construction of ghats [steps leading to the river] at some selected points, and making the Ganges navigable from Allahabad to Haldia,” observes Shripad Dharmadhikary, founder of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra, an NGO that works on water-related issues. “But there is no clarity about each of these components and how they would fit together,” he told The Diplomat.

Modi’s Clean Ganges crusade, while rich in rhetoric, seems parsimonious on details.

The 2,525-kilometer-long Ganges originates in the Himalayas. It leaves the mountains at Rishikesh and hits the plains at Haridwar, after which it snakes eastwards across the plains through India and Bangladesh until it empties into the Bay of Bengal.

Around 37 per cent of India’s 1.2 billion people live in towns and villages along the Ganges. They depend on it for drinking water, irrigation and livelihood, and also turn to it for spiritual sustenance.  The Ganges is worshipped by Hindus. A dip in the Ganges is believed to cleanse one of all sins. Hindus believe that the Ganges’s waters are pure and purifying.

It is at dawn, when the sun is yet to rise, that the Ganges best displays its spiritual side. Flowing lazily through the Indian plains it paints a picture of perfect calm, quite like the millions of Indian meditating on its banks or taking an early morning ritual dip in its waters. Boats filled with pilgrims glide gently over its waters. The sight of little earthen lamps floating on the Ganges is magical, as is the sound of temple bells.

But with sunrise the veil lifts and the mystique is gone, laying bare the stinking sewer the Ganges has become. Stretches of the river are tar-black. Sewage, industrial effluent, human corpses, and animal carcasses have turned the sacred Ganges into a dying cesspool.

The Ganges’s waters are not just dirty, they are toxic.

A fecal coliform count exceeding 50 per 100 ml of water and 500 per 100 ml is considered unsafe for drinking and bathing respectively. For agricultural use, the count must not cross 5,000. But the Ganges’s average fecal coliform count overshoots these limits drastically – as it exits Varanasi, for instance, the count is between 1-2 million per milliliter of water – which means that its water is lethal for drinking, bathing and even irrigation.

Domestic sewage is the primary cause of the Ganges’s contamination. Some 2,723 million liters a day (MLD) of sewage is generated by 50 cities located along the river, accounting for 85 percent of its pollution. As for toxic chemicals polluting the Ganges, tanneries are the main culprit, although pulp and paper mills generate the most waste water.

Environmental experts point out that while addressing the pollution of the Ganges is important, focusing on pollutants alone is not the best approach. “The decrease in water flow in the Ganges has reduced its capacity to purify or dilute its pollutants,” says Brahma Dutt Tripathi, professor of environmental engineering at the Banaras Hindu University and an expert member of the National Ganges River Basin Authority (NGRBA). Hence attention must be paid to increasing the water flow in the Ganges, he says. This can be done by de-siltation, removing all mid-stream constructions, and halting construction activity along the river’s banks.

While on the one hand the Modi government is calling for rejuvenating and cleaning the Ganges, it is simultaneously talking about developing this river in ways that could undermine the rejuvenation efforts. On the table are plans to build 16 new dams across a 1,600-km long stretch of the Ganges between Varanasi and Hooghly. There are also plans to develop the Ganges as a waterway for commercial activities. Such development activities would kill a river that is already struggling to survive, argue experts, pointing out that the string of 16 proposed dams would convert the Ganges “into 16 huge ponds.”

In this regard, the government’s silence on the entire Upper Ganges Basin is worrying, as this is an area “where several hundred dams and hydro-power projects are operational, under construction or in the pipeline,” points out Dharmadhikary.

Attempts to clean the Ganges have been made before. In 1985, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi set up a $226 million Ganges Action Plan. India’s courts have ordered the closure of tanneries polluting the river’s waters. Then in 2009, Mission Clean Ganges was announced and the NGRBA, headed by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was created. It was seen to be an improvement over GAP as its approach was more holistic, focusing on the Ganges Basin rather than a few of Ganges’s riparian cities.

However, the Ganges’s many problems persist and indeed seem to have multiplied.

Building of infrastructure for the treatment of sewage at several points along the Ganges was an important element of GAP. However, much of the sewage treatment infrastructure built at enormous cost lies unused, crippled by power shortages, an official in the Central Pollution Control Board told The Diplomat.

Yet building sewage treatment plants remains an important component of the Modi government’s plans for the Ganges, observes Dharmadhikary.

According to Sunita Narain, director-general of the Delhi based Centre for Science and Environment, “A comprehensive solution to the Ganges pollution lies in dealing with three problem areas: one, finding water to dilute and assimilate waste; two, finding innovative ways to check the growing amount of untreated sewage discharged into the river; and three, fixing the enforcement to stop industries from discharging waste into the river.”

Several countries, including the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan and Israel, have offered their technical expertise to clean the Ganges. But some have raised doubts over the usefulness of the Thames or Rhine cleanup model for the Ganges.

Dharmadhikary cautions that that while there is “no problem in drawing lessons from what others have done,” India would need to adapt foreign solutions to the Indian situation and “not ape blindly.” We must learn from their failures as much as from their successes, he said.

Experts emphasize that participation of ordinary people in identifying problems, finding solutions and implementing them is imperative for a sustainable solution to the Ganges’s problems. It requires a bottom-up approach, one in which “communities and common people are involved as key participants, in cases even drivers of the cleanup program,” Dharmadhikary says, stressing that the Ganges cannot be kept clean “unless the millions living in the basin want it to be so, and will participate in not dirtying it in the first place.”

“Unless the common people ‘own’ the program, it will not work,” he insists.

In recent weeks, Modi has called for a “mass movement” to rejuvenate the Ganges. He has said that volunteer teams from across the country would be involved in creating public awareness and performing “Ganga seva” (service).

While mass mobilization on cleaning the Ganges is a step in the right direction, there is a danger that the BJP, a Hindu nationalist party, will mobilize along communal lines through appeals to religion and faith. The BJP’s critics have always maintained that the priority it accorded to the Ganges is driven by its Hindutva project.

Ultimately, for India to find a sustainable solution to the problems that afflict not just the Ganges and other rivers as well, it will need more than a mass movement. An approach that includes all communities, irrespective of their faith, will be required.

Dr. Sudha Ramachandran is an independent journalist/researcher based in Bangalore, India. She writes on South Asian political and security issues and can be contacted at [email protected]

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